Friday, July 28, 2023

Thanks to veto override (and PlatePay), tribal tags may evade turnpike tolls to tune of $10.8M per year

The double-whammy of removing toll booths to implement PlatePay and the legislative override of Gov. Stitt's veto of a tribal vehicle tag compact is going to cost Oklahoma citizens a pretty penny:

Tribal plates allow drivers to evade Oklahoma tolls
By Ray Carter | July 25th, 2023

This week, members of the Oklahoma Legislature overrode Gov. Kevin Stitt’s veto of legislation authorizing a one-year compact with tribal governments that allows the issuance of tribal vehicle tags.

When lawmakers did so, they locked in place a system that is allowing drivers with tribal car tags to evade paying tolls on state turnpikes, a practice that is expected to cost the state millions of dollars and increase the fees imposed on all other, non-Indian drivers.

Prior to the veto override, officials with the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority met with lawmakers to notify them that tribal car tags, many of which are not registered with state officials, are creating both public-safety problems and financial challenges for the state.

“This is not going to go away,” Joe Echelle, deputy director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, told lawmakers.

For years, the tribal tag issue was not a problem for state turnpikes because the system included toll attendants or lanes for drivers to pay in cash. Under that system, Echelle said that “people driving with a tribal plate or other unregistered plate, if they didn’t have a Pikepass they pulled over and paid cash to a toll collector or put it in a coin machine.”

But the state’s turnpikes are now transitioning to an electronic “plate pay” system that monitors car tags electronically. Drivers that do not have a Pikepass are individually billed turnpike fees.

While that system has reduced car accidents at toll booths, it has also allowed many drivers with tribal tags to evade payment because information on registered owners of vehicles with tribal tags is not provided by tribes to the state. In fact, many are driving with illegal tags.

“We’ve realized just in the last year, really, that this issue was going to be a big one for us,” Echelle said.

Since May 15 the agency has been tracking unregistered tags on the turnpike system. In just two months, drivers with tribal tags accounted for a huge number of unpaid tolls.

Drivers with Cherokee Nation tags accrued more than $1.5 million in unpaid tolls from May 15 to July 18.

Cars with Muscogee (Creek) Nation tags accrued $675,167 in unpaid tolls during those two months.

A single vehicle with a Muscogee (Creek) Nation tag failed to make $687 in toll payments during that time, while an individual with a Cherokee Nation tag failed to pay $670 in tolls over those two months.

Based on April 2023 data, Echelle said the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority estimates that drivers with tribal tags will evade payment of more than $10.8 million in turnpike fees per year.

The situation is due, in part, to flaws in existing state-tribal compacts on tribal tags and the lack of enforcement mechanisms.

Only three tribes have compacts with the state of Oklahoma authorizing tribal car tags, and only two of those tribes run that process through a local state tag office.

The Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw have state compacts regarding tribal licenses. The Choctaw and Chickasaw issue their licenses through state tag agencies, but the Cherokee have their own, in-house tag division. Under those three compacts, individuals living anywhere in Oklahoma can obtain a tribal tag, not just those living on historic tribal reservation land. There were 132,192 tribal tags issued to individuals in those three tribes in 2022.

Some other tribes issue their tags through a compacting tribe.

In theory, non-compacting tribes may issue tribal tags only to members of the tribe who live on tribal allotment land or live within the historic reservation area of the issuing tribe.

But not all tribes abide by that.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, for example, offers tribal tags to any member of its tribe living anywhere in Oklahoma.

“They’re a non-compacting tribe,” Tim Tipton, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety (DPS), told lawmakers. “What they’re telling their citizens is if you live within the geographical boundary of the state of Oklahoma, we’ll issue you a tag and you can use it. Same thing with the Absentee Shawnee tribe.”

There are 33 tribes in Oklahoma that offer tags to members, typically at a lower rate than what other Oklahomans pay to tag their cars, with 30 tribes doing so without a state compact.

DPS estimates there are as many as 570,146 vehicles on Oklahoma roads with car tags issued by non-compacting tribes.

State officials do not have information on most of those tags, including the home address of the driver, and lack information even on many tags issued by compacting tribes.

Stitt has argued Oklahoma’s compacts with tribal governments need to be updated to address a range of issues, but tribes have refused to do so and state lawmakers have acted to hamstring negotiation efforts.

During a special session this week, the Senate voted to override Stitt’s veto of House Bill 1005X, a bill that authorized one-year state-tribal compacts regarding motor vehicle licensing and license tags. The Oklahoma House of Representatives had previously voted to override Stitt’s veto of that bill on June 12.

Lawmakers have referred to the bills as “extending” existing tribal-tag compacts, which are set to expire at the end of this year, but the practical effect is to approve new compacts with shorter terms without the involvement of the governor in the negotiation process.

Because the expiration of the existing compacts loomed, approval of HB 1005X weakens the state’s hand in negotiations in the short term.

Although DPS and the Turnpike Authority alerted lawmakers to problems with the existing tribal-tag system on July 21, lawmakers made no attempt to address those issues or improve the compacts. Instead, HB 1005X locks in place the existing system, including widespread evasion of turnpike tolls, for another year.

Echelle told lawmakers the cost of those unpaid tolls is shifted to other drivers through higher rates.

“In order to make up that 4.5 percent that’s not paying,” Echelle said, “we have to charge everybody else a little bit more.”

Article authored by Ray Carter of the Center for Independent Journalism. Re-published by permission.

1 comment:

  1. Too many Oklahoma State Legislators are Tribal Members. Seems like conflict of interest to me.


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